It’s a fact: In public life, we often tend to make judgments based on appearances. If someone looks or acts different enough from us, we tend to believe his or her views are outside of the mainstream as well. For politicians in particular, being considered “out of the mainstream” is damaging, and this raises some interesting questions when their religious beliefs cause them to act or look different from the American norm.
The current tempest in a teapot is over the (entirely irrelevant) question of whether Mitt Romney and Harry Reid wear Mormon undergarments. And there’s the despicable comment by commentator Dennis Prager that newly elected Muslim congressman Keith Ellison’s desire to take his oath of office on a Qur’an rather than a Bible “undermines American civilization.” In each case, a politician’s integrity is being called into question, either implicitly or explicitly, because his religious beliefs may cause him to behave differently from what we’ve come to expect.
Both of these non-issues will blow over because they are not so highly visible–Ellison swearing on the Qu’ran looks like Christian politicians swearing on the Bible, and the silly Mormon undergarment flap obviously takes place out of sight. But it’s an interesting question how Americans would react to a politician whose religious beliefs or practices looked really different–say, a female Muslim politician who wears hijab (headcovering), or a Sikh who wears a turban. Put differently, would Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an observant Jew, have been able to achieve the broad national success he has if he wore a kippah (skullcap) or had tzitzit (ritual fringes) hanging out from under his jacket?
The irony is that appearance is a lousy basis for deciding how extreme a politician’s religious views might be since, with the exception of groups like the Amish, Christian piety doesn’t generally express itself in distinctive garb. Believing that if someone looks like you they will think like you is as great a fallacy as the idea that if people look and dress distinctively, their views will not only be different, but in tension with your own.
When we make decisions about our politicians based on superficial features rather than their policies and positions on the issues, we only promote a system that favors superficial politicians.